“I will lend you, for a little time,
A child of mine, He said.
For you to love the while he lives,
And mourn for when he’s dead.” Edgar Guest (1881-1959)
It is always difficult to comprehend the deaths of the youngest among us. All of us have come across sad family stories. When they involve the death of a baby or young child, we mourn a little with our ancestors. Such is the story of Isabel Bowes Bruce, my second great-grandmother. Isabel married John Bruce in 1864 in County Durham, England. Isabel was 19 and John was 21. They began their married life in the small mining village of Tudhoe where a new coal mine (Tudhoe Colliery) had opened in 1864. John began work there as a miner.
On 4 May 1866, Isabel gave birth to their first child, a baby girl they named Margaret. Between 1866 and 1876, Isabel and John had six children. Sadly, within that same time period, they buried four of their children, three of them were less than a year old. Isabel was often heavily pregnant at the time she was burying one of her babies.
Margaret Bruce, born 4 May 1866. She died 13 months later, aged 1 in 1867. Isabel was about 8 months pregnant with their second child.
Thomas Bruce, born 23 July 1867. He died 7 months later in February 1868.
Margaret Bruce, born 14 May 1869. (My great-grandmother, she died aged 80.)
John Thomas Bruce, born 3 Jan 1873. He died at 2 months old in March 1873. Isabel was pregnant again within a month or so of burying John.
William Bruce, born Oct. 1873. (My great grand-uncle, he died aged 85.)
John Bruce, born 1876. Died, aged 11 in 1887.
Isabel herself died before she was 40 years old, by 1884. Her husband John remarried in March 1884. The marriage certificate states he was a widower. I am quite sure that burying so many of her babies must have taken a toll on Isabel.
In what seems a sad coincidence, Margaret Bruce (born 1869), my great-grandmother, would have the same experience her mother had. She would bear 6 children between 1889 and 1899, four of which she would bury before their second birthdays.
My great great great great grandfather is John Thomas
My great great great great great grandfather is James Thomas
With the exception of William born in 1834 and John born in 1769 there has been a James Thomas in every generation of my direct line since 1731. And if we look at all the children of my direct line ancestors, there has been a James Thomas in EVERY generation since 1731.
They did live in different places so that should make it easier to distinguish them, right?
My father is James Thomas, b. 1935 in County Durham
My grandfather is James Thomas, b. 1894 in County Durham
My great grandfather is James Thomas, b. 1864 in County Durham
My great great grandfather is William Thomas, b. 1834 in Cornwall
My great great great grandfather is James Thomas, b. 1808 in Cornwall
My great great great great grandfather is John Thomas, b. 1769 in Cornwall
My great great great great great grandfather is James Thomas, b. 1731 in Cornwall
Not so much.
They had different occupations by which to distinguish one James from another…
With the exception of my father and grandfather, all were coal miners.
That didn’t help.
And Thomas is a rare surname in Cornwall, right?
An article from Who Do You Think You Are? magazine cites a study commissioned by the Cornish Mining World Heritage Site (CMWHS) and done by genealogist Stephen Colwill into the spread of Cornish surnames around the UK.1 Stephen Colwill concluded that, “The three most common Cornish surnames are Williams, Richards and Thomas.”
It’s certainly an interesting experience researching my Thomas roots in Cornwall and County Durham. I have to admit I kind of love that there is a James Thomas in every generation. And I am not one to buck tradition. So I named one of my sons…James.
I have written before about my great-grandfather, John Bellas and his frequent journeys from County Durham, England to Kimberley, South Africa to work in the mines. His wife, my great-grandmother, Ann Wilson, married at age 20, becoming an instant mother to John’s small child from his first marriage. She was a woman who, for many years as John traveled to find work, raised their children alone. She crossed an ocean to an unknown land with her young family to be with her husband. She buried six children before she was 41 years old. She was a strong and beloved woman.
Ann Wilson was the second wife of John Bellas, they married in 1887 in County Durham. 1 Ann was 20 years old when they married and settled in Newbottle, a small village occupied mostly by coal miners and their families. John Bellas had been widowed in 1886, leaving him with a young child, also named John Bellas. Upon her marriage to John, Ann became a mother, taking over the care of four year old, John. In August of 1888, Ann gave birth to her first child, a son they named Thomas Bellas. Unfortunately tragedy struck a year later, in 1889, when John died at the age of five.
A few months later, Ann found herself pregnant again, this time with twins. The twins were born on 14 May 1890 and were named John and Elizabeth Jane.2 John lived only one day. Elizabeth Jane lived 15 days. Ann had buried three children and was only 23 years old.
In October 1893, John Bellas left England, making the 17-day journey by ship to South Africa. Ann had given birth in March 1893 to a baby girl, Mary Hannah.3 For the next six years, John was only home for short periods of time as he traveled back and forth between England and South Africa.
I imagine that life was not easy for Ann, having her husband gone for long intervals. In 1899, newspapers in County Durham began to report on the developing tensions in South Africa, especially around the town of Kimberley. This must have caused great anxiety for Ann. John joined up with the Kimberley Town Guard to defend Kimberley from Boer attacks. The Boers besieged the town for 124 days but ultimately failed to take Kimberley, which had finally been relieved by the advancing British forces. All of this was constantly being reported on in the newspapers of the day, no doubt causing much worry for Ann over her husband’s safety.
The 1901 census 4 shows the entry for Annie Bellas and her four children in the village of Shiney Row, County Durham. Ann is described as the head of the household, aged 35. She has no occupation listed indicating she likely relied on the money that John was able to send back to the family from South Africa. The children were aged 12, 8, 4 and 2 years old. Basically a single mother for much of those six years, Ann was fortunate to have some family support with her in-laws, David and Margaret Bellas, living next door.
John Bellas was fortunately unharmed in the skirmishes around Kimberley and in 1903 returned to his family in County Durham. Again, this was only for a short time, but this time, Ann and the children accompanied John on his return to South Africa. Had Ann had enough of being left behind and insisted the family goes with him? Did she simply miss her husband and not want to be parted from him? The impetus for the move is unknown but Ann did pack up the family and she and the four children joined John Bellas on his return trip.
One can only imagine how much strength and courage this must have taken. Ann had never left County Durham and was now taking her children on a journey across the ocean to South Africa. She was 35 years old. The children were 14, 9, 6 and 4 years of age.
John and Ann would have another 5 children born in Kimberley, South Africa between 1903 and 1909. Unfortunately, three of the children died in infancy, two from influenza and one from meningitis. Ann had now buried 6 children (including John, the child she became a mother to upon marrying John Bellas).
Ann and John stayed in South Africa until July 1911. Boarding the steam ship ‘Durham Castle’ the family, with the exception of two of their children, traveled via Delagoa Bay, Mozambique to Southampton, London.5 Eldest son, Thomas, had been working in the Kimberley mines since he was 15 years old and stayed behind to continue working. Daughter Mary Hannah had married earlier in 1911 and also stayed behind. Ann left behind the tiny graves of the three children born in South Africa and her eldest son and a daughter. It surely must have been a difficult goodbye.
Although John would make one more trip to South Africa in early 1912, Ann remained in County Durham. John returned to England in 1913 and rejoined the family. Ann lived to be 64 years old, passing away in Shiney Row, County Durham on 22 August 19306. John passed away in 1938.7
Ann was obviously a much beloved wife and mother and deeply missed as is shown in the memorials published in the newspaper by her husband and children from 1931 through 1940. Each year on the anniversary of her death, her husband and children placed an ‘In Memoriam’ piece in the local newspaper.8
England, marriage certificate for John Bellas and Ann Wilson, married 25 June 1887, registered April quarter 1887, Houghton-le-Spring District 10a/600, Registry Office, Durham. ↩
England, birth of John and Elizabeth Jane Bellas, born 14 May 1890; registered April quarter 1890, Durham District 10a/487, Houghton-le-Spring District, Durham; General Registry Office, Southport. ↩
England, birth of Mary Hannah Bellas, born 21 March 1893; registered April quarter 1893, Durham District 10a/503, Houghton-le-Spring District, Durham; General Registry Office, Southport. ↩
1901 census of England, County Durham, Shiney Row, p. 12 (stamped), Annie Bellas; image, Ancestry.com (www.ancestry.com : accessed 22 April 2012); citing The National Archives, RG13, piece 4694, folio 55, p. 13; Houghton-le-Spring registration district, ED 14, household 76. ↩
UK Incoming Passenger Lists, 1878-1960, database with images, Ancestry.com (www.ancestry.com : accessed 22 April 2012), “Names and Description of British Passengers,” entry for John Bellas family, arrived 16 August 1911 on Durham Castle from Delagoa Bay. ↩
England, death of Annie Bellas, 22 August 1930; registered September 1930, Durham District 10a/422, Houghton District, Durham; General Registry Office, Southport. ↩
England, death of John Bellas, 27 January 1938; registered March 1938, Durham District 10a/528, Houghton District, Durham; General Registry Office, Southport. ↩
“In Memoriam,” Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette, Durham, England, 22 August 1933, p. 8, col. 1. ↩
The family bible is one of the most precious heirlooms a genealogist can have. A few years ago, my father was visiting his brother in England, and the subject of the family bible came up. My uncle was kind enough to pass the bible on to me, knowing of my passion for genealogy. It is a beautiful, large, and heavy bible, about 14 inches x 10 inches and almost 5 inches wide.
Our biggest hurdle was getting the bible from England to the U.S. where I lived. I did not want to send it via the mail. Fortunately, my father was staying at a guest house with a couple from the U.S. who had brought their daughter over to York to begin university. These strangers very kindly offered to bring the bible back with them to the U.S. and send it on to me.
The bible is titled, ‘Brown’s Self Interpreting Bible’ and the cover is embossed leather with metal on each edge and beautifully engraved metal clasps (one of which is missing). The Self Interpreting Bible was Rev. John Brown’s (1722-1787) most successful work. It contained the scriptures with marginal references and explanations for the ordinary person.
The inside of the bible contains beautiful pictures of various bible scenes, in vivid color.
In the middle of the bible are the pages that every genealogist hopes to see. Those that contain handwritten names and dates of birth, marriage and death. I can see from the handwriting that most of the names and dates were written by one person at one time, not at the time of each event. And the names are of only one family, the James Thomas and Margaret Bruce family. They are my great grandparents, who lived in County Durham, England. 1
James Thomas was born in 18622 in Medomsley, Durham, and Margaret Bruce was born in 18663 in Sherburn, Durham. They married in 1888 at Bethany Church 4, a Christian Lay Church in Sunderland, Durham.
James and Margaret Thomas went on to have six children with only two surviving infancy. Those names are written in their bible. How sad it must have been to write down the death dates of their precious little ones.
The Thomas family bible is a valuable resource but it is more than that. To me it is the precious feeling of being able to hold in my hands something that I know my great grandparents once treasured.
Thomas Family Bible, The Holy Bible (Newcastle Upon Tyne: Adam & Co. Lmt), “Births, Deaths”; privately held by Sue McNelly, [address for private use,] Arizona, 2010. ↩
England, birth certificate for James Thomas, born 29 January 1862; registered March quarter 1862, Durham District 10a/265, Lanchester Sub-district, Durham; General Registry Office, Southport. ↩
England, birth certificate for Margaret Bruce, born 4 May 1866; registered June quarter 1866, Durham District 10a/365, Saint Nicholas Sub-district, Durham; General Registry Office, Southport. ↩
England, marriage certificate for James Thomas and Margaret Bruce, married 3 March 1888, registered March quarter 1888, Sunderland District 10a/715, Bethany Church, Durham; General Registry Office, Southport. ↩